Fr. Luigi Giussani (Fraternità CL)

"My Niebuhr"

Fr. Giussani's doctoral thesis dedicated to the American theologian. An opportunity to empathize with his vibrant ecumenical passion, and with that "Christian realism" that marked his thought. From the May issue of Tracce.
Elisa Buzzi*

"Nothing is so incredible as the answer to a question that is not asked." How often did those who followed Fr. Giussani’s lessons, listened to his conference presentations, or participated in his conversions hear him quote this phrase by Reinhold Niebuhr – "my Niebuhr", as he used to say. That was not the only expression of the American theologian that Giussani liked to repeat, but it was certainly the phrase that most frequently recurred in his talks. Giussani himself documented the occasion of his first “encounter” with this judgment of Niebuhr, and explains the insistence with which he repeated it: "Reality is an answer and God is the ultimate definition of this answer, but the answer is to a question, according to what the main author of my thesis on modern American Protestant theology taught me that evening, indeed that morning […] That evening, I had finished a chapter and was tired because it was late, so I put the reading down and went to bed […] In the morning I got up and I do not even know if I said my prayers, because I wanted to go on reading that book. It was very interesting; I had finished a chapter and I began the new chapter, which began with this sentence: 'Nothing is so incredible as the answer to a problem that is not asked'" (L. Giussani, In cammino (1992-1998), BUR, Milan 2014, pp. 187-188). He continued: "I have always quoted this phrase to children because the first condition to understand the answer to the human that Christ claims to be is to feel to the point of suffering one's own unanswered human question. The encounter with Christ exalts this pain as one exalts a hunger at the sight of food" (L. Giussani, Da quale vita nasce Comunione e Liberazione [From What Life is Born Communion and Liberation], supplement to Litterae Communionis-Tracce, 2/2010, p. 11).

The "book" Giussani speaks of is The Nature and Destiny of Man, the main text, along with Faith and History, the subject of his doctoral thesis in Sacred Theology, Il senso cristiano dell’uomo secondo Reinhold Niebuhr [The Christian Meaning of Man According to Reinhold Niebuhr], which is now being published for the first time since it was defended on June 23, 1954, edited by Monica Scholz-Zappa.

It would certainly be reductive to limit the importance of this writing by Giussani and, more generally, of his relationship with Niebuhr and with American Protestant theology to the suggestions of a phrase. However, this phrase, together with the thesis’ title, not only highlights an initial "factor of harmony" between Giussani and Niebuhr "in a reflection that takes the drama of living as its starting point", as the Archbishop of Milan, Monsignor Mario Delpini, observes in his Preface, but also offers a key to introduce us to the complexity of a text whose interest lies on different levels: biographical, historical, philosophical ,and theological.

A first level is well summarized by the editor in the Introduction: "To approach Fr. Giussani’s doctoral thesis today is not only an opportunity to rediscover a precious document of his life and the beginnings of his scholarly output, but to identify oneself with a perennial ‘beginning,’ with his vibrant capacity for encounter that flows from the unitary bed of faith, from within an original relationship with the Other. In the choice to dedicate his research to one of the greatest representatives of Protestantism of the time, a central element of this ‘vibrant capacity for encounter’ emerges, that would continue as a fundamental dimension of Fr. Giussani's intellectual and educational commitment: his ardent ecumenical passion. This was a passion that was welcomed and nourished at its birth and in its theoretical developments within the Venegono Seminary’s climate of great theological and cultural openness and dynamism. Undoubtedly, a further element that aroused interest in Giussani may have been Niebuhr’s ‘empirical’ and ‘pragmatic’ temperament; Niebuhr defined the profound logic of his thinking as a “circular relationship between faith and experience.” He declared that his main interest was the "defense and explanation of the Christian faith in a secularized age, particularly in relation to those whom Schleiermacher called the ‘intellectual scorners’ of Christianity"; and he fiercely attacked the "bland moralistic and sentimental idealism" of liberal Protestantism which, in its concern to make Christianity "credible" for modern culture, had rendered it completely "irrelevant" for modern men, "as much for the crises of personal life as for complex social questions" (cf. R. Niebuhr, Una teologia per la prassi. Autobiografia intellettuale. [A Theology for Praxis. Intellectual Autobiography], Queriniana, Brescia 1977, pp. 54, 43-44, 47). In fact, this ‘radical Protestant,’ as Emil Brunner defined him, never renounced considering faith as a relevant factor in history, including social and political history, though his speculative and spiritual journey eventually led him to adhere to a perspective close to dialectical theology.

The limit of positions such as Karl Barth's, according to Niebuhr, is having considered the Kingdom of God revealed in the Gospels only as "a principle of judgement upon the world", rather than as "a criterion of judgement in the world" (R. Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy. Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History, Scribner's, New York 1935, p. 302). This basic attitude was expressed in an intense social and political commitment in all the circumstances that marked American and world history during the first half of the 20th century, from the First World War to the Vietnam War, from working-class Detroit in the Ford factories to the Cold War.

In the introductory pages of the thesis, Giussani enhances this dimension of Niebuhr's thought, retracing the stages of his human and intellectual story with ample references to the philosophical and religious context from which it arises. However, the protagonist of the doctoral thesis is not the Niebuhr of his first ethico-political works up to Moral Man and Immoral Society and An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, but the Niebuhr of the great theological-anthropological and historical synthesis of his maturity, in which his "Christian realism" unfolds, as Giussani writes, in "an imposing construction" (p. 201), where religious experience illuminated by Biblical Revelation, according to the original accents of American Protestantism, is defined in "a complete physiognomy of the human from a biblical-Christian point of view" (p. 193). In the first two sections, Giussani offers a penetrating analysis of this construction, a "systematic and organically complete" expression of Niebuhr's thought. This is divided into three parts: the "Human Problem", that is the study "of the nature of man and [of] his structure"; the "Human Situation" and the "Human Destiny", where "the object of the analysis becomes the existence of this nature, the human structure insofar as realized, existing; and the fundamental “situation” is studied. In a third section, man's existence is considered, as it expands as society and as development – as history; and its dialectic and final resolution is studied' (pp. 38, 39). It is a final solution in which the human heart's inexhaustible demand finds its answer in the "divine initiative", in a "Grace" that "forgives and fulfils (...) the human deficit" (pp. 195, 198).

Yet Niebuhr's evocative construction rests on precarious foundations that reveal themselves, to Giussani's critical eye, in the "clear impression that all his work constitutes a testimony not to the truth of Christ, that is to the truth as Christ brought it, but to the truth as a man believed he saw it" (p. 201). The fundamental limitation of Niebuhr, Giussani observes, is to be found in his being "perfectly Protestant" in his substantially subjectivist position and, above all, in his acceptance of the "fundamental prejudice of the religious attitude of the most representative intellectual Protestantism", a true and proper "dogma" of Protestant liberalism and theological modernism that is fully preserved in dialectical theology, of whose schemes Niebuhr ultimately remains a prisoner: "Nothing transcendent can be objectively and absolutely defined by reason nor ontologically contained by existence" (pp. 201-207).

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In the last section of the thesis Giussani thus analyzes with iron consequentiality and lucid theoretical penetration the "applications" of this prejudice at the epistemological and ontological-metaphysical level, and the problematic consequences they implicate in Niebuhr's anthropological, moral and theological conception. Giussani will repeat these critical observations on the root of what he calls the "landslide" in Niebuhr's conception in later writings dedicated to him, but in this last section of the doctoral thesis the philosophical and theological reasons that support them are argued with an analytical precision and a wealth of references that make this text a most interesting document of the intellectual temperament of its author, as well as the authentically ecumenical breadth of his position. Indeed, Giussani’s last words, written in the Conclusion, in a final review of Niebuhr's work, are once again an acknowledgement of its value and "extreme topicality". In showing the native ambiguity of the human dynamic and the inexorable contradiction of its development, Niebuhr "is a great voice that recalls that ambiguity to modern problematism recalls that ambiguity, and that contradiction as the all too unknown soul of every problem – as the problem" (p. 244).

*Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Brescia